In doing the philpapers inspired Philosophy 101 series (found here and here, so far), touching on the questions asked in the largest ever survey of philosophers, I thought I would give some nice, basic factfiles explaining what some of the key philosophers have brought to the philosophical table. We hear so much about Aristotle, Plato, Hume and Descartes, but who the hell are they and what did they think (in a really short, easy-to-digest manner)?
Having already covered Socrates here, I am moving on to his protege, a certain Mr Plato.
Era: 427-347 BCE
Main area of philosophy: Epistemology (what is knowledge and how do we come by it?), rationalism (using reason as opposed to empirical evidence to ground knowledge)
How do we know: Apology (about Socrates), dialogues (thirty-six dialogues and thirteen letters have been ascribed to him), Republic, Symposium and other writing
Bio: Belonged to aristocratic family, well educated it seems, and a protege of Socrates. Founded one of the earliest known organised schools in Western world later in his life – the Academy which existed in one form or another until 529 CE when the Christians closed it down, seeing it as a threat. Go figure. Got into politics. Got sold into slavery. Got bought out by an admirer. He either died in his sleep, at a wedding, or in bed whilst a young girl played the flute. Who knows, could be a euphemism. If so, way to go! He was a massive influence on his pupil, Mr Aristotle.
Plato is known for his claims of Ideal Forms, which goes something like this:
1) The real world is the world of IDEAS which contains IDEAL FORMS of everything
2) We live in an illusory world, the world of our SENSES, which contains imperfect copies of the Ideal Forms
3) However, we are born with the concepts of these Ideal Forms in our minds
4) When we recognise things in the world it is because we see them as imperfect copies of the Ideal Forms in our minds.
5) Everything in this world is a SHADOW of the REAL WORLD of IDEAL FORMS
Socrates claim of the concept that virtue is knowledge was seen by Plato as raising the question as to what a concept was. Whether it be a physical thing or a concept like a moral concept, there must be a perfect version of it. Every object around us is recognisable because it has a ‘-ness’ to it. Dogs have in common a ‘doginess’, chairs a ‘chairness’ and so on. These are universal properties, or universals.
Reason, so Plato thinks, is how we find out about the world, such as with mathematical knowledge, using logical steps and imagining conclusions. We do not find this TRUE KNOWLEDGE, if you like, through our senses. It is this reason which allows the conclusion that the world of Ideal Forms must exist – that we are in a cave, facing a wall with a fire burning behind us. Other people hold up objects, but we cannot turn around (if we do, we will likely be confused and turn back to our comfort zone) and see only the shadows of these objects. We are prisoners in our shadow world. This “Allegory of the Cave” illustrates the way Plato saw the world.
Because much of our ‘knowledge’ only comes from these imperfect representations, the only way to access true knowledge is to studying the Ideas. The material world is subject to change, but this world of Forms is immutable. And this is not merely the case for concrete objects, but for abstract ideas like love and courage, moral goodness and so on.
Our conception of these Ideal Forms must be innate, he argues, to be able to access them through reason. As such, humans are divided into body (senses) and soul (reason) which is immortal and eternal. This soul inhabited the world of the Ideas before our birth and will return there after our deaths. Thus the recognising of these shadows in the sensory world is recollection of when our souls were in the world of Ideas.
It is the job of philosophers to discover this world of Ideal Forms and Ideas (and these should be the people in the ruling class).
So Plato wasn’t just about arguing about true knowledge itself, as others before him, but HOW one could and should get there.
Platonic philosophy influenced later Christian and Islamic scholars, such as St Augustine.
And crucially, Plato was a massive influence on the 17th century Rationalists, who axiomatically placed reason as the grounding of knowledge, and not evidence or observation, as opposed to the Empiricists.
How does this affect your life and philosophy?
Well, these days the debate is over what everything is made up of, or more accurately, what the existence properties are of concrete objects, natural kinds and abstract objects and universals. This has been explained a little by myself in Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #2 – Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism. Plato believed there was an extra realm where abstract ideas and universals existed. These days, this is less adhered to, and yet many are still realists believing that these abstracta are really real, in some way. As I asked God in The Little Book of Unholy Questions:
Many argue that there is no such thing as objective morality, because any idea is subjective, as I will set out. Abstract ideas (such as objective morality) do not and cannot exist objectively. It is anthropocentric to imagine they do. Imagine a more intelligent alien life-form comes to earth and sees a table. They have somehow not invented tables. This table is not a table to them. In other words, a table only has properties that make it a table within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items – i.e. tableness. Without humans existing on earth, for example, ‘tables’ would not exist. Thus the label of ‘table’ is a result of ‘subjectively human’ evolution. If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. For example, a ‘forqwibllex’ is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have ‘made-up’). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does – have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned ‘mental labels’, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A table, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely they same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker. Therefore, the question, God, is: do abstract ideas exist outside of the subjective mind of the thinking entity?
Establishing the properties of everything that we can conceive is, to me, the most foundational philosophy that we can do.